Set in rural China during the 1970s, Ruyan Meng’s debut novel Only the Cat Knows is told from the point of view of a young factory worker married to a woman who stays home with their three children, two of whom suffer from ramifications of malnutrition. His wife could in theory work, but their sickly children need much attention and there’s no one else to care for them. The narrator’s salary falls short of monthly expenses for medication and food. Under no illusions that life is fair, he nonetheless sees others in his factory receive paychecks with bonuses and raises.
The themes of The Earth Spinner are elemental, from passion’s fire to the destructive power of the monsoon. Fire, water, and of course, earth are at the core of Anuradha Roy’s novel. Shaped when wet and fired in a kiln, earth stands for the inexorable drive to human creativity.
With climate change and environmental conservation on many minds these days, it’s only fitting that the late Manindra Gupta’s 2016 short novel, Pebblemonkey, told from the point of view of an adventurous monkey, has recently been translated into English by Arunava Sinha. The story takes on magical realism and weaves it into a cautionary tale about humans who exploit nature and think nothing of it.
The Persian Empire fascinates and rightly so. Founded by Cyrus the Great in 559, represented the culmination of 2,000 years of Middle Eastern history. During their two centuries of rule, the Persians united much of the then civilized world, from Egypt to India. Lloyd Lewellyn-Jones argues, in partial justification for his new history, that this era is ignored or misunderstood, a claim that seems at odds with now a rather long list of books on the Empire that may be found on Amazon. As both Llewellyn-Jones, grudgingly, and Matt Waters, more graciously, demonstrate, we know a huge amount about this empire, in part because it coincided with the classical age of Greek literature. In addition, this Empire recorded in clay tablets every loaf of bread and cup of wine provided to its civil and military functionaries. The very richness of the archaeological and literary sources make constructing a coherent story challenging. Llewellyn-Jones makes the history cogent and exciting by stretching his sources about as far as they can go, and provides no footnotes. Waters uses the same sources, amply documented, and in a gingerly fashion, for his painstakingly complete life of Cyrus the great.
The writing of Water, Wood, and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town was surely an act of devotion. It is a book that defies easy categorization by genre. Readers who enjoy travel literature will surely love author Hannah Kirshner’s ability to root her writing in a place and a culture. Foodies will find evocative descriptions of unfamiliar dishes, along with detailed, thematically-linked recipes at the end of each chapter—along with instructions for finding unusual ingredients in Euro-American grocery stores. While not an academic tome, Water is nonetheless a well-researched book backed up with the support of an ethnographer and a three-page source list.
Textiles have long been used by various cultures and ethnic groups to convey socio-cultural and religious messages, which in turn can also reflect the community’s identity. Hmong embroidered clothing and textiles are a rich resource not just for understanding the rich culture of the Hmong people but for textile knowledge generally and traditional needlework techniques.
Dung Kai-cheung’s A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On is an exercise in the influence of late-90s, mainly Japanese, popular culture on young women in end-of-the-century Hong Kong. The “catalog” consists of ninety-nine sketches, perhaps in an homage to Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, where Queneau took an unremarkable short episode and retold it in ninety-nine discursive styles. Queneau’s exercises are clever play with the structures and uses of language. Dung Kai-cheung’s catalog is a cultural “thick description” of popular culture filled with dry wit and humor. His sketches are not short stories. He offers flights of fancy.